August 8, 2008
Tom Rob Smith: Child 44
If there’s no such thing as bad publicity, then Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel is the early winner of the Booker Prize longlist. More column inches, most of them negative, seem to have been written about Child 44 than about any other longlisted title. “A fairly well-written and well-paced thriller that is no more than that,” said Jamie Byng of Canongate, damning with faint praise, adding, for the avoidance of doubt, “I cannot respect a judging committee that decides to pick a book like Child 44.” Others call it “a great page turner of a read but not a Booker contender.” My feeling is that there shouldn’t be such a category as “Booker contender,” or at least not one which excludes thrillers. Patricia Highsmith wrote ‘suspense novels’ but I would rescue several of her titles from my shelves ahead of many Booker winners. In fact there is no such exclusion: the great Brian Moore was shortlisted twice for his late-career thrillers, The Colour of Blood (1987) and Lies of Silence (1990). Enough of that: is Child 44 any good then, thriller or not?
The first thing to say, as may be clear from above, is that I would never have picked up Child 44 if it hadn’t been Booker longlisted. I don’t think it constitutes a spoiler – the blurb will tell you as much – to say that the book is a serial killer thriller (a little more than that, but it conveys the gist), and on the few occasions I’ve tried those before, I’ve never profited. Fred Vargas’s Seeking Whom He May Devour and Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon are the only ones that spring to mind, and I found them both unsatisfying, fatally limited by their own terms of reference (whodunit? and why did he do it? respectively).
Child 44 does have some promise, however, with an interesting setting – Soviet Russia and Ukraine in the 1950s – and an opening scene which reaches out pretty garishly to attract the reader but is nonetheless effective. Smith also manages to evoke the era and setting well without getting bogged down in detail. Leo Demidov is “an up-and-coming member of the MGB, the state security force” who deals in the sort of quotidian brutality in which the USSR specialised under Stalin. Anyone who asks too many questions is an enemy of the state, and in particular, people are reminded that crime does not exist in the Soviet Union. Leo, for example, must tell a family whose son was found dead on a railway line that he was not murdered as they suspect, but died accidentally.
This, via a series of conflicts with his superiors and colleagues, leads Leo to pursue justice for the family. (This takes us to halfway through the book, but again, I’m not revealing any more than the cover blurb does.)
If this seems to you to have a whiff of familiarity to it, you’d be right. It’s the old trope of the official who goes off on his own to investigate the murder despite being warned that the authorities consider the case closed. This, perhaps, is not Smith’s fault – just as it’s not his fault that his publishers have spent a packet promoting the book, or that the Booker judges by longlisting it have exposed the book to the scrutiny of people who would never otherwise have read it – but a fault of the genre.
However it’s also the case that Smith does not seem to have made any effort to transcend the limitations of his chosen form. Child 44 is well researched for its time and place, but there is no interest in authenticity elsewhere, particularly in what we might reasonably call the ‘action sequences’, such as a pursuit under ice, escape from a Gulag train (an especially untoothful part), and the closing chase scenes – for this is one of those books where the last 90% of the action takes place in the last 10% of the pages. Similarly the bibliography cited by Smith rings hollow when he has been unable to teach the reader anything unexpected about the USSR or about human nature: there are no surprises, no characters subverting our expectations, no challenges to the reader’s assumptions.
Others have said, on blogs and forums, that Child 44 is, despite its weaknesses, “a great page-turner” or “an excellent thriller.” Never mind that, I want to say: is it a good book? I don’t think it can be: it leaves the reader with nothing to contribute, preferring to explain everything as it arises, usually in unlikely reflections by the main characters – like that explanatory description of Leo Demidov’s job (“an up-and-coming member of the MGB, the state security force”), which comes from Leo’s point of view, as though he would routinely remind himself about his job and what MGB means. Indeed point of view seems to be a closed book to Smith, along with narrative integrity generally. He regularly switches viewpoint in the middle of a scene, to suit what he needs to tell the reader – almost all the exposition in the book comes from this or from over-explanatory dialogue – and has extraordinary blunders like the following sequence of thought attributed to a four-year-old child:
If he ran he’d be safe. The shot, no matter how well made, no matter how accurate, could only travel so far through the air before it began to lose shape, fall apart. And even if it hit, after a certain distance they were harmless, barely worth throwing at all. If he ran, he could finish on a high. He didn’t want his victory overturned, tainted by a succession of quick hits from his brother. No: run and claim success. Finish the game now. He’d be able to enjoy the feeling until at least tomorrow when he’d probably lose again. But that was tomorrow. Today was victory.
Less significant solecisms pepper the text, especially a blind spot with commas, and there are distracting formatting problems like all the dialogue throughout being in italics (apparently to signify words in translation: a barmy notion). But Child 44‘s greatest sin is not the dialogue it does have, but the dialogue it doesn’t: it offers no exchange between reader and writer. This is a monologue where the reader is a mute witness. It reminded me of multiplex blockbusters like Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum - sequences of action pinned together by a secondary plot. The only dialogue here seemed to be the writer asking, “Will this do?” and my wondering, “Is that it?”
It may be that as a movie – it’s been optioned by Ridley Scott – Child 44 will be, if not better, at least more successful on its own terms. As mentioned before, it’s not Tom Rob Smith’s fault that the Booker judges have chosen this is one of the best 13 novels published in the last year. He wrote an unpretentious thriller, which doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a disposable time-filler. Then again, I couldn’t see anything to justify anyone spending time on it even on those terms. Perhaps it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But there’s no need to court it quite so brazenly.